Building a High School Gaming Program

J Collins
J Collins
May 22 · 6 min read

As a first year computer science teacher at an independent all-girls’ school, I have spent the past year building a gaming program (along with tremendous support from the administration here). This is what it looks like.

Core Components

My initial conception for the program was to break it into four different facets.

Esports and Casting
This year we organized and hosted a pilot esports tournament for Cleveland-area schools and libraries. You can read about it in the CMSD News and some of the theory behind the tournament in an article that I wrote for EdSurge. As part of that program, our students also learned how to stream to Twitch and created an extensive AV setup to capture an in-person Championship match that we hosted at the school. I have other blog posts on this topic.

Our esports video mixing setup for the championship

Gaming Lab
Through some luck and a lot of support, I’ve been able to convert one of our smaller computer labs into a Gaming Lab. We now have two 55" rolling TVs and a high end PC connected to a variety of consoles (NES, SNES, Switch, Xbox, and Oculus Rift) as well as 5 PCs suitable for esports practices. Shortly after setting up the lab, we have about a dozen students stopping by every day to hang out, mess around, and geek out. Sometimes they just play games, other times they teach and support each other, and still other times they just study and work on homework. Whatever they choose to do, it’s rarely quiet!

So many joy-cons! And yet not enough for everyone who wants to play.

Game-based Curriculum
I teach three courses right now and was able to build games into each course.

Algorithms: In all three courses, we use games to better understand algorithms — e.g. can we write algorithms to “solve” games/systems? To always win them? To always lose them? What if we change the game’s core algorithm? We wrote out our algorithms and tested them under multiple conditions. We did this for both digital and tabletop games to see how different systems acted differently.

Intro to Computer Science: This course meets for about 20 hours throughout the year. While the full year experience covers a variety of topics, the heart of the course is an introduction to programming. We looked at a series of games to understand programming concepts (such as Candy Box 2 to explore loops and Lost Pig to ponder custom functions) and then put each concept into practice by creating similar games in Scratch and (later) Python. Next year, the class will be using Minecraft: Education to explore these topics as well.

Overcooked + fighting games = design innovation?

Interactive Media: This course meets about twice as often as the Intro course. We learned a variety of rapid prototyping techniques and software including Twine, GameMaker, and Unity Playground. We explored games and interactive design from a variety of angles ranging from looking at successful (and unsuccessful) entries from conferences like Games for Change to exploring critical theory perspectives through Feminist Frequency. We looked at defining audience, metrics for success, and how those both affect the design of systems and art. Students ultimately learned design principles and critical thinking skills through computer science and games that they can take with them to many other areas of study.

AP Computer Science Principles: For much of the year, we followed Harvard’s CS50 AP curriculum which already includes game programming tasks like Scramble. I also wrote a custom dungeon crawler in C and had the students reverse engineer/rebuild it from its compiled state. Later in the year when we began exploring networking, we looked at the wonderful network simulation game Transmission as well as networking tutorials from the Hollywood-esque hacker game Uplink.

Game Showcases
The Interactive Media course — which I am modeling off of art courses — has two required showcases during the year. In the first semester, students are required to present and display one of their revised prototypes. In the second semester, they work on multiweek projects independently or in small groups and again they present and display their work in a showcase for the rest of the school. This year we were also invited to display some work at the MW Conference through a joint proposal between our school and Kent State’s game program (we were sadly unable to accept the invitation). The hope is to expand these programs in the future because showcasing student games is just as important as showcasing any other type of student art.

Our first showcase!

Results

Recognition
Despite this being the first year of our program, we have been invited to seven professional conferences since September to present on both the gaming program and our esports work in particular. Importantly, our students have been invited to co-present at some of these conferences as well, so it’s not just me doing the talking.

The esports work has also been featured by two news outlets and we received some offers of corporate and philanthropic sponsorship throughout the year. Our Interactive Media class was featured at the ED Games Expo at the Kennedy Center as well.

Student Activities
In the days preceding our student-run roundtable at the Intentional Play Summit, some of our students also had the opportunity to tour major tech companies including Ubisoft’s San Francisco studio and Google’s Stadia team (prior to it being announced!). While there, they were able to meet several role models working in the game field right now. Students have said throughout the year how important that experience was for them.

Esports Team Rules

We are still finalizing numbers for course registration, but it looks like our elective Interactive Media course may increase by 30%. Students are also planning on organizing their own afterschool game club for next year. One student has opted to do an independent study connecting games and poetry next year, and I expect to see more interdisciplinary work emerge to connect the gaming program with other areas of study here. Another student has already spent time outside of class building a Punch Out! clone in Twine (it’s so much fun!!).

There is a lot more work to do, but one thing is clear: gender is not a barrier to a gaming program here at our school. The immediate success that we are seeing at our all-girls’ school parallels the success that I have seen at co-ed programs. Our program looks different and we may play different games (Super Smash is the most popular game right now — and we do not play any FPSes or M rated titles) but the results and excitement from the students has been more than I could have hoped for back in September.

This has been our games program for 2018-2019.

J Collins

Written by

J Collins

Computer Science Educator + Game-based Education Evangelist + Trans Advocate. ||| Former Smithsonian & U.S. Dept. of Education Policy Expert. (They/Them)